Architectural Criticism on the Art Market: An American Debate, 1975-1985
gta/D-ARCH/ETH Zurich, Columbia University
When in spring 1975, with the informal exhibition Architectural Studies and Projects at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA), contemporary architectural drawings were offered for sale to the members of a preeminent art institution for the first time, two architecture critics – Paul Goldberger (New York Times) and Robert Campbell (Boston Globe) – responded, in fact diametrically. Whereas Goldberger reacted mainly benevolently, a position he would continue to balance in favor of his standing within the architecture scene of the time, Campbell answered harshly to the exhibition and its content. At the beginning of the 1980s, when more and more art galleries and museums featured architectural drawings and models in their program, a growing group of architectural critics served as a vital source for publicizing and evaluating architecture production.
What had begun in New York at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies (IAUS) through its exhibition program, events, and the publication of the critical magazine Oppositions, was translated by architectural critics like Joseph Giovannini, John Dreyfuss, Benjamin Forgey, and the widely respected Ada Louise Huxtable, for a larger public via questioning the autonomy of architectural drawings within the art field. «Architecture as Art» became a public debate powered by architectural criticism, and was only fueled by increasing commissions for large cultural institutions in the course of the 1980s. This became particularly clear, when Goldberger titled an article for the International Herald Tribune with «The Celebrity Architect Arrives», focusing on Richard Meier’s commission for the Getty Center in Los Angeles in 1984.
This contribution highlights how between 1975 and 1985 architectural criticism in the United States provided a forum for polemics on architectural representations as commodities. How did a group of architecture critics serve as a vital source for evaluating this market within debates on disciplinary autonomy, and how intertwined are the markets of criticism with those of publicity?
In 1978, an article in the magazine Architectural Digest concluded a survey of «architectural drawing as an art form» with the observation that it was «still something of a pioneer field for the collector [affording] a dual satisfaction: There is both aesthetic pleasure and intellectual stimulation in having direct contact with art that shapes our manner of living.» Eight years later, The New York Times art critic, Grace Glueck, recapitulated in the ‹Home› section of the newspaper that despite fears over high prices – and a dispersal of documents – from organizations such as the Society of Architectural Historians, «architecture as a subject has become much more accessible, and architects not quite so anonymous.» As a result, the art market for architectural drawings gradually collapsed in the early 1990s, coinciding with a new construction boom since the late 1980s and the institutionalization of more standardized, computer-aided drawing techniques that significantly limited the supply.
The market had started at MoMA in 1975 with the aforementioned exhibition at the then accessible Members Penthouse. The show provided a stage for a fundamental issue related to the core of architectural criticism: In his review of the exhibition, Robert Campbell took the opportunity to suggest the mounting of a different show with buildable projects rather than reactionary drawings in order to, «help educate the public in the one visual art it can’t help living with». Shortly after, the Boston-based critic and editor, Peter Blake, who, like Campbell, was also an architect, reflected this stance. In his unpublished, public talk on the ‹failure of architectural criticism› during the IAUS’ spring semester, Blake made the point that «certified architecture critics in the US by large do not understand architecture, discuss it as an abstract art, and write not for an intelligent and interested and aware public, but for each other […].» Similarly, the architecture historian James Marston Fitch (Columbia University, New York), reviewed architectural criticism in the United States in 1976 and came to the conclusion, that «the iron-bound formalism of current architectural criticism is quite as dangerous to favored buildings as to favorite architects.» Blake further stated that, «the architectural profession in the US, individually and collectively, subverts and emasculates all intelligent criticism of architecture», through censorship, which also advertisers executed, if the coverage mentioned their products in a negative way. During his time as an editor-in-chief of Architectural Forum the magazine died three times. It ceased publication in 1974.
With regard to the exhibition at MoMA, Campbell took a very different stance to Goldberger, who highlighted «extremely skilled drawings by more familiar New York architects such as Peter Eisenman, Richard Meier and John Hejduk», all of which had support of Philip Johnson, who was instrumental in financing the IAUS. Later, the critic acknowledged that, «one of the problems in perception of my criticism was that I didn’t really take an absolute position completely on one side or another.» Moreover, Goldberger’s suggestion that, by encouraging public interest in architectural drawings as art, the exhibition was most likely going to be successful, was met by the critic himself, when he purchased at least one drawing from the show.
Not least, if this early example of criticism around an art market-related exhibition in the 1970s points to anything, then to the question whether any critic, through detachment, can ever be effective. Furthermore, it points to the position of the critic in a multi-tiered, commercial world.
In a conversation with this author, the critic Martin Filler remembered with regard to operations of the professional magazine Architectural Record during the 1970s that «they had no sense of criticism. Their attitude was: if it gets built, it’s good for the profession; [and] even in a place that permitted criticism [such as Progressive Architecture], there were always internal struggles about that.» During the mid-1980s, at a time of heavy debates on the legacy of modernism in architecture, Filler’s elaborations shed light on the specific mechanisms of criticism in the field of architecture, in which «it is the creator, rather than the critic, who calls the tune.» Focusing on the complex power plays in the field, Filler assessed in the book ‹The Critical Edge. Controversy in Recent American Architecture› (ed. by Tod A. Marder, published with MIT Press in 1985): «Historically, the establishment of a critical voice in architecture in this country has usually depended more on the support given the writer by a publication rather than his or her own evolution of a set of principles and values.» Criticism functioned differently in the other arts, partly «because in architecture the stakes are so much higher than in any of the other art forms», with typically much longer production cycles. Likewise, architectural drawings in the art market presented an unusual phenomenon in the context of the profession. Architecture’s – and the architect’s – entanglement with a global, cultural infrastructure became more and more apparent since the late 1970s. Accordingly, the critics had to adapt and were challenged to balance these powers against pure affirmation.
In relation to the phenomenon of ‹starchitecture›, pointing to a crisis of criticism – already identified by Campbell and Blake in the mid-1970s – Vladimir Belogolovsky, in an interview book with architects, still questioned in 2014: «Do we even need critics anymore? Constructive criticism is being displaced by pure praise and advertising.» Similarly, Goldberger assessed, «that nobody tears down a building if an architecture critic doesn’t like it.» Notwithstanding instances, in which critics had an impact on the built environment, it is fitting then that the ‹powerless› critic was able to flourish by covering the market of architectural representations, which featured hardly any buildings that could have been torn down in the first place.
Martin Hartung has been a doctoral fellow at the Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture (gta), ETH Zurich since 2014, where he researches the exhibition history of architectural projects in the art market. Martin conducts the first critical assessment of the Max Protetch Gallery Archive (New York and Santa Fe). Previously, he served as a Curatorial Assistant in the Department of Media and Performance Art at MoMA, New York (2011-13). He was a visiting scholar at Columbia University in 2016 and a scientific assistant at ZKM | Museum of Contemporary Art in Karlsruhe, Germany. Martin is a member of the editorial board for the Art Market Dictionary (De Gruyter).
Image caption and credits
Left: Architecture critic Paul Goldberger and architect Charles Gwathmey during a dinner in a private dining room of The Four Seasons restaurant on the occasion of Gwathmey’s 60th birthday in June 1998. Among the small group of attendees were Richard Meier and John Hejduk (to the right), Peter Eisenman, Michael Graves, and Philip Johnson. A private note to Johnson by Gwathmey’s business partner, Robert Siegel, in a photo book, in which this picture is included, reads: «Dear Philip, Knights of the round table gathered; King Philip, Prince Paul, the reunion of the New York Five to celebrate commitment, respect and Charles’ 60th birthday. […]».
© The Philip Johnson Papers, Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles.